England's Shift from Agricultural Economy to Capitalist Market Economy

by Bret Dishner, June 2014

1200 words

4 pages


In her book “Ale, beer and brewsters in England. Women’s work in a changing world, 1300-1600,” Judith Bennett contends that work opportunities for women did not decrease in early modern England. In her opinion, there was never the so-called “Golden Age” for women’s work; rather, the author argues that women always worked in occupations that were both low-skilled and low-paid, demanded little investment and could be done in breaks of time between home and childcare.Equally important, Bennett’s narrative allows us to trace the trajectory that England followed in its transition from agricultural economy to capitalist market economy. In essence, any changes at the end of the Middle Ages were observed in the domains in which women occupied, not in the nature of that work itself. Adopting the ale industry as an example, Bennett (17) suggests that women stopped brewing only when this activity turned into more profitable and more reliant on skills, capital and full-time application. This emphasis on skills and technology which were needed for brewing to remain lucrative shows how England shifted to capitalist production and market relations (Bennett, 13). In essence, Bennett (15) demonstrates how exactly and to which degree women participated in the development of the economy in medieval England. Generally, when we analyze the Middle Ages, it is easy to ignore the work of women because it is often assumed that they only worked at home. Although this is not 100 percent true, it is helpful to take a look at the chores which women were tasked with in the home and on the impact this work had on any other work which they might have been doing. As Bennett (15) points out, it is sometimes challenging to gauge the work which women did since very few of them were literate in the Middle Ages. Therefore, when they can be found in records, we look at their activities from a perspective of men. Obviously, this poses a certain difficulty for genuinely understanding in what kinds of activities women were engaged. Hence, it is frequently assumed that they merely worked in the household (Bennett 54).A woman’s role of both a wife and mother in the household is crucial. Women were initially considered to be the property of men, which is demonstrated by a large number of women seeking permission to marry at the manor courts. Marriage essentially translated into a woman’s greater right to security and property than she would have had as a single woman. Women also sometimes gained joint tenancy through marriage. Furthermore, every woman who had been married to a freeman of the city became a freewoman of the city on his death. Although this is a certainly a positive development for women, it came with the condition that she only kept this status as long as she remained single. While living with their husband, women had to learn about his occupation so they could cover for their husbands when men were away. This was also needed so a woman could carry …

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